Confronting an elderly parent about spending?

Hi everybody:

I don’t post here often, but I do read almost daily. I hope to get advice from people not emotionally invested a difficult situation.

Basically, my brothers and I help to support our elderly mother (One brother and I live out-of-state, the other brother lives in Mom’s town, Mom lives in an independent-living senior apartment complex.)

Due to health issues, I’ve been paying several hundred dollars each month for a caretaker to come in a couple of times a week. In addition, she needs to get dentures and so far the cost estimates range from $4000-$6000. One brother has a family and his finances are strapped, but that’s okay because he does the in-town support and that’s invaluable. The other brother has agreed to help out financially as well. I am HAPPY to help, even if it means putting myself into some of my own debt, because she’s my mom and I love her and I can get myself back out of debt much easier than she can. We’ve asked her to help with what she can, and she claims that she doesn’t have any money and can’t contribute. Fair enough.

So here’s the problem. In-town brother has access to mom’s email and computer, to help her out with tech issues and things that come up. Today he asked me about all the online purchases Mom’s been making. Um, what? Just in the last month, she’s charged about $700 of stuff (on credit). And it’s crap stuff – new bedding, lots of house decor, expensive makeup. This is a woman who won’t buy the $4 magnesium pills that she needs, because she’s “too worried about the cost”.

So my emotions right now are ranging between:
–being PISSED that she can’t help with her own health costs, but she can buy stuff she doesn’t need
–being SCARED that she’s in some sort of mental decline and no longer making good financial decisions

So what do we do? She’s going to be really hurt and upset that we betrayed her by looking at her emails. And, we are totally guilty of that, no question. I’m trying to justify it as being out of concern, but it’s still going to be a really, really awkward conversation.

Do we let it go? Do we confront her? What do we do moving on? I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of asking for some sort of oversight about her money, but then again, I think she really might not be capable of doing this on her own. (She’s only 70, but has had 3 strokes, a major heart attack, and lots and lots of health issues in the past few years. So I know that she has some diminished mental capacity, but I don’t know that she’s declined to the level of dementia or anything that serious.)

TLDR: We’ve been helping our mother out financially due to claims of no money, but she’s been spending lots of money on non-essentials, and hiding it from us. What do we do?

Thanks to anybody who has advice on this situation.

Do you know it’s her? Can you see the cheap bedding/makeup etc in the house sitting around? Because if there’s anyone who comes into the house regularly who might be able to get access to her credit card…

Sad to say, this was my first thought also. I can visualize a scenerio where, while your mom is taking a nap or in the dining room for a meal, a caregiver discovers Mom’s credit cards in her purse and . . . presto-change-o, the caregiver has got herself some nice new home decor. More than one staff person at my late m-i-l’s retirement facility was fired for stealing.

If you’re sure it is your mom doing the buying, then you will just have to have the very awkward conversation. Your brother can say he saw the e-mails while he was fixing something on the computer and that they looked suspicious to him because he “knew” she wasn’t spending money. I wish I could offer more than my sympathy. Discussions with parents that suggest they aren’t competent anymore are dreadful.

Good luck.

Unfortunately, we’ve confirmed it’s her buying the things. I double-checked with the in-town brother, who was over there today, about one of the big, noticeable items, and it was there in the apartment.

To make matters worse, I just got off a Skype call with her, where I could see the bedspread that matched the one in the order email. The problem, though, is that I did notice the bedspread last time we talked, and she told me she got it at Goodwill for super-cheap. So, she’s “with it” enough to try to hide her spending from us. I’m sure she’s doing it to make herself feel better (she’s clearly depressed, at least IMO, but she denies it and won’t seek help), or to have a feeling of control, or something…

So, not only do we have the awkward conversation about the spending, now it will be coupled with the knowledge that she’s not being truthful about it and we caught her out. Which will be mortifying for her, I’m sure. And us. Gah.

Thank you both for your sympathy. It’s appreciated. This is really painful to deal with, and I’m afraid it’s only the beginning.

Does your mother have a Durable Power of Attorney?

If so, you need to know what it says, and how to get it activated. In particular, who controls her bank account and pays the bills. If you are paying several hundred dollars a month, you may want to consider that if she pays it, it’s a tax deduction. If you pay it, it’s just another bill.

If she doesn’t have a Durable POA, your only option is to probably get guardianship of her. Depending on the stat it could be easy (California) or really, really hard (Texas).

You could also get her to go to a local Geriatric Assessment Program (google it in the nearest large city) to see if they can do a good assessment of her medications, physical and mental health. Medicare will cover part of the cost. You can also consult your local Area Agency on Aging which is a partially federal agency that provides support and guidance to both the aged but also their supporting family.

Yes, it sounds like a difficult time for you. My mother had a diagnosable mental illness, clear symptoms and when they finally manifested in her doctor’s office, I got a letter from her physician in about 15 minutes and took over her finances. If you and your brother’s can legally control her finances, you will help her in a financial way, but she may hate you for it.

Good luck.

Household decor and fancy makeup sounds exactly like the sort of thing I buy when I’m feeling a little trapped and need to add some dignity to my life. While she may not be able to afford them and that is an issue, the idea of buying bedding and make-up on its own doesn’t sound too “out there” to me, unless it’s just vastly out of character.

If she’s spending $700/mo. on credit, that will eventually bite her in the posterior portion. That’s eight grand a year. How long it can go on depends on the rest of her financial situation, but the creditors are going to want their money eventually, and having her hauled into court when she can’t keep up the payments (or she uses the rent money to pay the credit cards and then faces eviction, or some other similar predicament) is going to be ugly.

No, you can’t let it go. Somebody is going to have to have a very difficult conversation with her. The three of you need to discuss it amongst yourselves and come up with a plan first–don’t allow her to play the three of you off against each other. Depending on personalities, it may be better if all three have “the discussion” with her together, or maybe just the brother who found the emails questions her about them, or maybe some other tactic.

Does anybody have power of attorney for her? Are any of you in regular contact with her doctor, or with the staff at the independent living establishment? Do any of you have enough access to her accounts to figure out whether this is a one month thing or a pattern developing over months or years? If she’s concealing her purchases from you, AND lying about it, you have to think about what else she might be concealing.

Yes, it’s going be difficult at best, and maybe gut-wrenchingly bad. She’s used to being independent, and she has the legal right to spend herself into abject poverty. That’s not what you want for her, though, and most likely not what she wants either.

We had to have the conversation with one of my in-laws last year. (He was concealing the fact that his utilities had been shut off, until he couldn’t conceal the situation anymore.) In his case, he pretty well hit rock bottom, and was not as resistant to giving somebody authority over his checking account as we thought he might, so although we talked to an attorney about obtaining a conservatorship, we didn’t have to go that far. He doesn’t have really obvious dementia either, but loneliness and/or depression caused him to wildly overspend (a chunk of it on scams), and the relative who ended up with his POA has spent a lot of time trying to make settlements with creditors. You have my sympathy.

Oh dear. It sounds like a tough situation. I must say, though, that if she’s self-aware enough to hide her spending from you it’s probably best to rip the bandaid off right away by telling her you know about it. Very likely she lied because she feels guilty - she knows it’s not right that she’s spending a bunch of money when you’re stretching yourself to support her. And if the reason she spent the money in the first place was self-medicating for depression with some retail therapy, then guilt feelings which make her feel worse may push her into spending even MORE money you all don’t really have. That can get into a vicious spiral pretty quickly.

The other thing that occurs to me - if she’s really scared to spend a few dollars on necessary medicine, it sounds like she’s trying to hold herself to an unrealistic standard of spending. If both ten bucks and a hundred are categorised in her mind as “money I shouldn’t be spending” then she may not really be perceiving an emotional difference between the two of them. Then when it all gets too much and she wants to splurge a bit … well, might as well spend a few hundred, it’s just the same as spending ten bucks really. In her mind. Just as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. Does that make sense?

Might it help to actually give her explicit ‘permission’ to spend money on stuff she actually needs, and on some amount of ‘fun money’? Like 'honest, mum, we don’t MIND if we pick up the tab for your medicine, we WANT you to buy it! And … a movie and a cup of coffee every couple of weeks, fine. But not going on ebay and buying random stuff every day…

Really good advice and suggestions here. Thank you so much.

Yes, the biggest issue here is why she’s spending like this. Either she’s doing retail therapy for depression/anxiety, or she’s not able to make good decisions. Either way, it’s a concern. She definitely doesn’t have the funds for this. Ironically, she does have a bit in savings (a few thousand), and we agreed to not have her use those funds for the medical stuff, so that she could have peace of mind that she has an “emergency stash”. But I guess now I don’t know if she really even still has that money, and if she does, it’s not going to last if this keeps going.

Thanks for the recommendation about the Area Agency on Aging. I called them and they have some services - particularly those dealing with mental/emotional health - that might help. We’re going to talk to Mom, then set up an interview with a caseworker.

There are some tough moments ahead. I think I’m a pretty good problem-fixer. Give me a problem and I can come up with ways to help. But I’m not so good at confronting difficult issues and initiating unpleasant discussions, especially with my mom! I guess I’m about to learn how…

Thanks again for the responses. :slight_smile:

  1. Be honest. It’ll be better for you, and better for her. Every time.

  2. Be open. You’ll both need to know how, moving forward. Start now, you lead.

  3. Be gentle. Gentler even! Always leave your Mom some dignity.
    No matter how hard the road ahead, these three things will serve you well.

Wishing you Good Luck!